by C. J. Hirschfield
Gary has lived in his home by Lake Merritt for over 15 years. Between the pandemic and a fire that destroyed part of his living quarters, Gary was forced to find a temporary home, and it wasn’t so easy. Gary is somewhat elderly, requires a specific diet, and has many special needs. But his new place? Gary has really been digging it—literally.
Gary is Oakland’s Junior Center for Arts and Science’s star attraction—a California desert tortoise who has been charming both young and old at the Center for over 15 years, inspiring kids to appreciate the diverse world of nature that surrounds them. Gary is now temporarily living at a home in West Oakland, in a habitat created especially for him by two scientists, where he is living his best life.
Gary represents an endangered species, and is an example of an animal that was taken from the wild—probably when he was very small–and sold as a pet. The exact details of Gary’s life before coming to the Center are unknown, but he was likely kept somewhere dark, and was underfed. This was determined due to the pyramiding scutes (thickened bony plates) on the back of his shell that point upwards, where they should be smooth, indicating a lack of access to proper nutrients.
Gary also has a small hole drilled into the back of his shell, where it is believed his previous owners tied a rope to prevent him from escaping. Eventually, Gary was abandoned, and found living alone under an empty house. A family discovered him, and brought him to the Junior Center. Gary’s age is estimated to be around 52 years.
When the pandemic forced the closure of the Junior Center, someone immediately came to mind as the one best suited to foster Gary. Sigrid Hubbell, a scientist who is now studying horticultural therapy, had been bringing Gary food she’d grown at the community Gardens at Lakeside Park on a weekly basis for over a year before the pandemic.
She says he’d get excited about her visits—and the fresh kale he knew he was about to get. “It was something I really looked forward to,” she said.
The Center’s animal caretaker, Zaynab Alrashid, refers to Sigrid as “a super volunteer—and a godsend,” and says that she’s always been Gary’s biggest fan. Zaynab has visited Gary’s new digs, and says it’s “beyond the best situation.”
Zaynab, a Mills College grad who majored in Biology, cares for the Center’s 12 animals, which include everything from a tarantula, to snakes, to a bearded dragon, to Jessie, a Hermann tortoise who is smaller and less social than Gary. Zaynab is actually fostering Jessie until the Center re-opens.
But she acknowledges that Gary is definitely the Center’s rock star; all the kids know him by name. “The first thing they say is ‘Can we see Gary?’” The gregarious tortoise was given free rein to wander the Center, and children loved feeding him.
These days, Gary is enjoying an expansive lot and garden, where he also has what Sigrid describes as a little “smart home,” surrounding an underground burrow, complete with a dual ceramic heat lamp assembly, UVA/UVB sunlamp, temperature/humidity sensor and ample plexiglass for viewing and protection. He roams the property by day, and retires to his enclosure at night.
Sigrid and her partner, Justen Reed had never played host to a reptile before, so there was a big learning curve. Gary also needed to adjust to new surroundings, which he immediately did, and with great gusto. New to him? Clay soil, diverse plants to forage, increased independence, and different animals (cats, dogs, possums, raccoons, rats, mice), including his favorite—ants. And then there’s the absence of children…
Sigrid did quickly learn that Gary’s species is “gopherous,” meaning that digging is his thing. Sigrid says that he’s using his body as intended; his shell for plowing and excavating, tongue for capturing food, and legs for energy-efficient digging.
Sigrid had to educate herself about what plants are toxic to tortoises; luckily there’s a site called the Tortoise Table that had all of the information she needed. “Most of what he eats we consider weeds,” she said. No arugula; but lots of dandelion flowers, white clover and chicory. Strawberries, carrots and grape leaves are his favorites.
He also gets a good soaking each week, which is good for his skin.
Here are the characteristics Sigrid ascribes to Gary, after so much of their time spent together:
- He’s observant
- He’s determined
- He’s not deterred by changes to his surroundings
- He moves at his own pace
- He rests when he needs to
- He blows bubbles
- He’s okay in his body
- He gives himself time for leisure
And now the world—and all of his fans– have a chance to see and get to know Gary better, thanks to his own YouTube channel. Video titles include Gary’s bout with constipation, Gary observing ants and eating them, Gary drinking water and making bubbles, and Gary’s efficient digging. Sigrid has also designed a most delightful “Lessons from a Desert Tortoise” slide show that further educates folks about the life of a reptilian rock star.
For those of you appreciating how much Sigrid has given to Gary, Sigrid wants you to know how much Gary gives back. She considers him a therapy animal who’s provided much fun, especially during the pandemic with all its stressors. “We’re spoiled because we get to have Gary to ourselves,” she said.
The Junior Center, which is dedicated to providing equitable access to all of their programs, has not yet announced its re-opening date, but is offering in-person and online summer camp, as well as other online programs.
In March, the Junior Center was heavily damaged in a fire that was related to a homeless encampment on their deck. According to officials, damage from the fire to the interior and exterior of the center was estimated to be as high as $250,000.
Oakland’s Junior Center of Arts and Science is still accepting fire relief donations.
Until the Center reopens and Gary is welcomed back by his adoring fans, they can be assured that he’s in very good hands. And since desert tortoises can live to be as old as 80, one can assume he has many more adventures in his future.
C. J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel, and advocated on behalf of the industry. She has penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, and now writes regularly for The Oaklandside, EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University. Hirschfield currently lives in Adams Point and serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film Series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.